BoardRoom articles

Lead articles from BoardRoom magazine.

Are you a Samurai or a ninja?

Oct 23 2018

BoardRoom October/November 2018 issue

Boardroom cover
Exponential changes in technology are transforming the business world and the way we work. Artificial intelligence, big data, open data, virtual reality – everything is now underpinned by technology, and keeping up with constant advances is a huge challenge. Many of us can’t begin to fathom what the future will look like even two years down the track.

What we imagine is that business is still linear, because most of our lives have been lived within linear frameworks. That meant we could sort of predict what would happen next year, because it was likely to be an incremental advance on last year – no real gear-change needed. That doesn’t really apply any more,” says futurist Frances Valintine CNZM, the Founder and Chair of tech education companies The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab.

Valintine thinks the recent drop in business confidence has a lot to do with a growing unease about the future and
the changes that are afoot. “People can see it, taste it, and feel that something is changing, but they can’t quite put their finger on what to do.” She likens old-school, traditional corporates to Samurais. “They are holding onto the old ways and to well-trodden traditions, and where familiarity feels safe.” New companies tend to be more nimble, positioned from day one to be agile and responsive to change. “They are the Ninjas who come in by stealth. They operate under new business
models and are underpinned by digital and incumbents don’t see them coming.

It’s not that these startups are deliberately trying to be invisible, it’s just the way they operate. They come in, and they’re fast and responsive.” As the world innovates and changes at break-neck speed, the ability to pivot when situations change and to recognise when you need new knowledge and different forms of experience is a key feature of attaining ‘Ninja’ status. “Redundant knowledge is hard to replace if you’re not accepting that some of the choices you’re trading on, some of the knowledge you’re utilising, is no longer best practice and not contemporary in terms of what is now possible. If you recognise that you have knowledge gaps, you’ll look for ways to plug that gap, whether that is developing your own skill set or finding other people to plug that gap,” says Valintine. 

THE NEED FOR TECH EXPERTS ON BOARDS

In order to keep pace with technological changes, Valintine would like to see permanent technology advisors on corporate boards. Failing that, she says boards need to have two or three advisors regularly attend board meetings. “That way there is consistency, they get to really know the business and can come in and advise. Having a consultant pop in for a one-hour overview is not going to change the culture or the expectations of a board to make some big, bold or
risky moves.”

Hearing a range of opinions and advice is important, so she doesn’t think having one tech expert on or advising a board is enough; there needs to be a range of opinions and advice. “For me, it’s all about making sure there are enough people focused digital technologies and future impact. It’s a bit like having a token female – one female does not represent the views of all women, and with technology it’s the same thing. You need to have enough skilled people who can drive technology conversations so that people really deeply understand the importance of decisions being made. If one person
is holding the conversation, debate will not occur and change will not happen. I think more and more people are trying to find those skillsets for boards, and also raise the level of understanding within boards but greater emphasis is still needed.”

BALANCING RISK AND THE NEED FOR CHANGE

Valintine says the legal liabilities directors face can make taking risky decisions unattractive. “Boards of directors are highly accountable for the decisions they make… So, for example, you decide to move your whole organisation to become Agile, like Spark has, there has to be an acceptance that there are risks. Typically, boards take the more conservative route, which in today’s fast-moving world is potentially the riskiest route of all.”

She thinks people in governance roles need to work out how to balance the need to do things differently against the risk
of implementing changes. “The challenge is between realising ‘if we stay as we are our future will look very grim and our returns to shareholders will diminish and eventually we will be no more’. Or, ‘we take risks and we tell shareholders that dividends aren’t going to be pretty for a little while, but we’re going to be able to navigate through this change and come out transformed in a good way, and continue with the market that we see, but also potentially take on new opportunities’.”

THE CHANGING WORKFORCE

Valintine says there’s a skills gap in New Zealand, with a lack of knowledge and experience around these new and emerging technologies. “There’s so little expertise that the people who do know it are almost exclusively contractors because they don’t want to work within the confines of a single organisation.”

This means employers have to get used to the fact that people working for them may also be working with their competitors. “That’s the nature of contracting and we have to get comfortable with that. For example,
if you’re a bank you have to be comfortable knowing that Bank A is getting the same advice as Bank B from the same person, while the unique context and the information would stay contained within each organisation. That’s quite a different situation from the past where we’ve been able to hire permanent full-time employees.”

This gig economy is being driven by millennial workers, who already make up half of the workforce in New Zealand. “This new generation don’t aspire to work in a fulltime permanent position the way previous generations did, that’s not part of their DNA. They don’t understand the attraction in that. They want variety, and as well as paying the bills, they want to work on projects that mean something. It’s a much more holistic and value-based way of looking at what it means to work.” She thinks people who are mid-career are probably the most vulnerable in terms of their future career, as their entire schooling, education and the majority of their experience is from pre-digital times. “If they’ve come into a senior
level and maybe even a governance role, they are still trading on the capability they’ve had from those analogue environments. While experience is really important, and networks are really important, we also need to have deep understanding of macro-changes and advances to identify what are the big technologies that are coming in and shaking the ground beneath us.”

HOW TO KEEP UP AND THRIVE

Valintine says, despite the huge changes afoot, there is no need to fear the future. Instead, there are endless benefits and possibilities created by technological advances, but it takes a real commitment to re-education and upskilling.

“Take a few months off every few years to do some professional development so that you build longevity into your capabilities. So that when you’re on a board and you’re talking about digital transformation, you’re talking about it from a highly informed view. You’ve done case studies, you’ve worked alongside companies that have gone through transformation or have created start-ups so that you really understand what is needed, from a practical standpoint as opposed to saying we’re just going to let the IT guys or the digital department figure that one out for us.”

The idea of taking time out of the workforce may be daunting for a professional with a mortgage and family obligations, but the payoff will come in future-proofing your career. “If you’re sitting in a role where you’ve become accustomed to a certain amount of privilege and a good salary and a great lifestyle, to go back to learn can feel like a backwards step…

Instead there should be nothing but admiration for people who commit to reskilling. It should be one of those things where people go ‘wow, that’s amazing, you’re taking time out to get your head around the stuff that your company can do really well’.” To enable and encourage ongoing learning, Valintine thinks New Zealand needs more options when it comes to technology education. “So people who want to do intense short courses can have options, we need to look at online courses, sabbaticals, working inside startups as well as traditional institutes. The flexibility of learning is that we need adults to go back and learn, not just our kids.”

In August, Tech Futures Lab launched Digital Suitcase, an online platform that teaches adults critical digital knowledge. (See the inside front cover of this issue for a special Digital Suitcase offer for IoD members.)

These teachers are studying digital technology so they can teach it. “If the teaching workforce, who are not financially incentivised to keep learning while they are working, are prepared to step up and give their valuable time to preparing themselves for the future then the business world need to take note and follow suit. How can you do your job without the right knowledge? If teachers can do it, we can all do it.”​

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